Best and Bravest
My belongings rained from the 6th floor to the sidewalk, one item at a time. I’d been drinking all day and into the night when I began dumping accumulations into the dark. This was a couple of months ago, between two January days in Washington, D.C. My brown brick apartment building stood at the end of a row of similar makes. Adams Morgan, a string of bars and haunts, was three streets away, but I don’t remember shouts of communal debauchery reaching my balcony. My Hoover vacuum was the first thing liberated, and I do remember the garbage bag wrapped around its neck, slapping the outside air like a kite as the bundle dropped. The balcony’s iron railing pressed solid and cold into my stomach, and I felt my insides rising in proportion to the plummeting of the vacuum.
Before the thin crack of plastic against cement, but after my fingers released the handle to gravity, my soul floated like being exactly between a jump and a fall. The vacuum hadn’t been working properly, and I’d thought it easier to drop the thing than to carry it down winding, carpeted stairs. I’d figured I might descend those stairs free-handed, retrieve the vacuum, and then discard it in a nearby dumpster. But I liked how it felt between the jump and the fall, and I liked how it felt to be rid of something useless, something thieving space, and I don’t get many feelings I like, so I tossed the extra shampoo bottles my mom had stacked in a cupboard. I tossed the glue-and-sawdust bed frame I’d been sleeping on. I tossed flakey cooking sheets, power cords, crumpled pants. I walked from room to room without recognizing sound or smell, or intention, freeing static and inanimate objects into the pre-dawn.
I drank a bottle of Bulleit bourbon glass by glass, smoked a pack of Camels stick by stick, and I came to understand there would soon be nothing left to toss but myself.
Before I blacked out, I began crawling, right hand and left leg forward, then left hand and right leg–cautiously crossing the threshold between my living room and the balcony. I wasn’t crawling because I was afraid of falling. I was crawling because I’m always thinking about jumping. I’m not plagued by visions of being struck by lightning, shot in a restaurant, or crashing from the sky in a plane. In my uninvited fantasies, it’s me who does the killing and the dying.
The next morning, nobody questioned me as I carried the broken pieces of my life from the sidewalk to an alley dumpster. Police were never called, a building manager never appeared, and my neighbors upheld our unspoken covenant to remain silent in regards to one another. The light of the day was scalding, and the inside of my apartment was outside my building. I didn’t have plates to eat on or a bed to lie in. I concluded I must be leaving. Moving. Running. This was the first time I threw my life off the balcony, but I’d reached this same conclusion many times before. I’m 27, and it started when I was 18. I’ve spent time in Florida, Alabama, Western Europe, Virginia, Eastern Europe, Colorado, Nicaragua, and finally, D.C. After chucking my possessions, I drove from D.C. to Nashville, again moving my body from another “there” to another “here,” no longer seeking, but now fleeing, and always tired.
Sun like Sunday morning shines against the windows of Centennial Bar, and the neon signs light nothing more than themselves. Large televisions intermittently cover the aluminum-littered walls, and the coasters are peeling and soggy. It’s supposed to be spring outside, but Nashville is summer or winter, and today is the cloudless former. It’s dark inside despite all that brightness, and my eyes are cast on the hiding and surfacing of the tendons on the tops of my hands. I work across the street in a cafe, and my shift starts in four minutes, but it’s doing whatever’s next that seems the hardest.
This bar was born looking old, and the weeds in the parking lot and the cracks along the exterior walls suggest to unwelcome newcomers that the place must be closed. It’s a bar from the time when people in West Nashville drank because they had to, and those of us who know the place honor the tradition.
I drink here every day before work, and so does Cyrus, and because it’d be embarrassing otherwise, we drink beside one another. We’re both ruined men, but he drives a motorcycle and is taller than me. He’s Jameson on the inside and windmills on the outside. As he speaks his arms whirl about his torso and his voice is scraped down the top of his mouth like gusts through a cracked window. His right heel bounces with isolated panic, and he doesn’t speak to my face, but to the space above either of my shoulders.
“…and Shayna only wants to ‘swanky and hanky.’ Classy grub and fuckin’. That’s all she’ll take. And I’m like, ‘Hey, Shayna, whaddya say about a salad?’ and she’s orderin’ fish she doesn’t know the name of. And I’m tellin ya, I fuck. Okay? I’m older than you, but not dead. And this woman is wantin’ me to regroup while I’m still inside her. And I’m a real soldier,” he says, pushing his finger into his sternum, “and so is he.” Cyrus glares into his own crotch before continuing his speech. His lifelong, uninterrupted stream of delusion. I slide my glass into and out of its own condensation ring.
This perfectly shitty bar found me on my second day in town, and from then until now I’ve never ventured outside of work, my rented room, or this den. I hate my work, my room, and Cyrus, but these last few years every new place and person feels like it costs me something. I burned across professions, countries, and religions, but now I stay in the same three spots, on the same side of town, looking at old pictures to prove to myself I haven’t always been the way I am now. These cyber artifacts suggest that I’ve lived two or three different lives, with the first being the life of adventure and the second or third being the life of a drunk. But that’s not the case. There weren’t one or two remarkable moments which sharply refined, adjusted, or stunted the trajectory of my character. It’s more like I was born on a treadmill I can’t turn off, or like I’m a ball rolled halfway up a hill–at my outset there was the energy produced by hope–but the force of the slope proved to be greater. And now I’m tired like sleep pays less than it costs to be awake, and I’ve already got a bunch of days ordered.
I signal to the bartender and he delivers my tab with a shot. I sign the bill and Cyrus is still going on, arms in motion and words whistling above my shoulders. I tip my forehead, raise the shot, and toss the liquor against the back of my throat. [I’m not even drunk. I’ve barely hit my baseline to function. I press the door open, spilling sunlight into the bar, and head to work.]
Andrew and I were not roommates when he killed himself. We’d lived together my last year of college, and then we’d ventured into adulthood along the paths available to us. Andrew, back to his hometown outside of Atlanta to sell medical supplies, and me to a church in Virginia, where I was a somewhat-paid intern in service of the pastor. From my small, windowless office I’d call Andrew’s direct line at work and murmur in an understanding tone, acting as though I were making a call to a grieving widow, or a youth who felt ostracized. Andrew would answer with a scripted line about meeting my supply needs, and then offer to discuss new state-of-the-art catheters which may address my clogged and atrophying penis. I would promise prayers for his lifelong struggle with beastiality, he’d get back to me on prices for geriatric toilet seats.
After a day in which Andrew and I did not call one another, I found out he was gone.
This was six years and seven cities ago and I was pulling into the driveway of my temporary home in Williamsburg. A mutual friend called me, his voice choking through incomplete phrases, and he told me Andrew was dead and that it was on purpose. I sat very still beneath the dull interior light of my 2002 Dodge Neon. I called Andrew’s sister but didn’t leave a voicemail. I rolled my windows down. I messaged an ex-girlfriend and told her someone important to me was gone. I lit a cigarette. I thumbed through text messages between me and Andrew. I needed to pee and I wanted to watch the next episode of The West Wing, but it’s doing whatever’s next that seems the hardest.
Every few minutes the idling engine shuddered, reminding me I was still in my car, and eventually I moved myself inside the house. That night and the next night I didn’t sleep. People sometimes say “I didn’t sleep at all last night,” but those people are lying. Maybe they slept very little, or maybe they don’t recall being asleep, but what happened to me was not like that. I watched every formation of the lines made by the digital clock on my bedside table.
I wasn’t overwhelmed by thoughts or concern for Andrew’s family. I wasn’t recounting moments of shared fraternal intimacy with my lost friend. I wasn’t imagining the gun or his body, and I wasn’t experiencing what I theorized grief to feel like. I spent that night and the next thinking entirely, and repetitively, of the inconsequential. I lay with my eyes sometimes open and sometimes closed, reminding myself when the dry cleaning would be finished, and which items of clothing were being cleaned. I considered and affirmed, over and over, the time at which I was supposed to be at work the next day, and the food I had in the cupboard and fridge. I pulled seemingly random phrases to the front of my mind until finding one which contained ten syllables, and then one at a time I tapped each of my fingers against my legs while sounding out the syllables in my mind. I swapped Facebook messages with a girl who worked at Starbucks. I masturbated. I counted breaths. I watched time happen.
The third night I drank gin from the bottle. I sat in boxer shorts on the side of my bed, the formations of the digital clock awaiting our rendezvous, and I saw bubbles move from the neck of the bottle to the bottom as liquid pine needles piled down my throat. I gagged, breathed, and lifted the bottle again. I gagged, breathed, lifted the bottle again and in the morning I found I’d been successful in missing minutes and hours. It may not have been sleep but it was better than being awake.
After the memorial, when I stepped into the front door of Andrew’s house without Andrew, his dad was sitting in a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. I’d been there once before, with Andrew, and when we’d walked in his dad had been sitting in the same chair. And you know how over the course of a year an entire pond flips over so all the bottom water is on top and the top water on bottom? Well, the second time I went to Andrew’s parents’ house and his dad was sitting in the same chair I’d seen him in before, I knew he was turned over like a pond. It wasn’t just Andrew who was gone.
I finally grieved. I grieved because my friend was gone, sure, but I continue to grieve because he took suicide with him. I’ve never made a plan to kill myself but I imagine the place on the other side of suicide to be Nowhere, where it always feels like nothing, and I don’t get many feelings I like, but nothing is one of them.
Some weeks later a magistrate named Heather M. Harrington asked me, through the glass of her spectacles and my incarceration, “Sweetie, why don’t you just stop running?” I was there for another D.U.I. but I knew her question was not in regards to my charge. I looked at her brown eyes, she and I partitioned by transparency, and I thought of the first time I saw me kill myself. It was five years before Andrew actually did, it was nighttime, and I was 17 years old. Concrete telephone poles were sliding from the windshield, along the passenger windows and into my rearview. My left hand joined my right in clenching the steering wheel, my heartbeat elevated, and I felt terror and awe as I considered how a movement so brisk as jerking my hands to the right might end consciousness. It was a beginning.
I put the magistrate’s card in my wallet without offering an answer, and it’s still there. I haven’t been running because I want to remain forever on the periphery of relationships or because I think seeing one more aesthetic wonder will forge the missing link in my broken mind. I’m not running because I’ve failed all my people and expectations. At least, that’s not why I’m running anymore. I’m running because I have to. Feeling nothing in Nowhere has become my temptation and fantasy, but I can’t leave my family with the cost of my admission.
I clock in and for the next eight hours I walk and talk around the cafe’s wooden floor of people in chairs at tables. The floor-to-ceiling windows cast the purple light of deteriorating day and the tables zigzag in a horseshoe around the coffee and beer bars. Manchester Orchestra shrouds the tinkling of mugs against saucers, and shoe heels clacking against table legs. My skin is slick with poison and everything around me–exposed brick, hardwood floors, fraying hats–is the manufactured scruff of New Nashville. My horizon wiggles and the interior of my skull pulses. Sweat bulbs from my forehead and palms. Tremors move through my arms and into the glasses and plates I’m carrying. My voice sounds strange to my ears. Only hours removed from my drinking with Cyrus, I’m in withdrawals.
The patrons leave and Allie and I begin the motions of closing. We clean nozzles, bottle-bottoms, catch-trays, and finger-tip patterned display cases. Allie’s got hazelnut eyes and she walks on her toes. She’s conventionally handsome and she frequently tells me, as though introducing a child to their own name, “You are not clever. You’re a moron.” She’s great, but I lost interest in romance sometime after I lost interest in living, so we don’t see one another outside of the cafe.
We may not even be friends, but we know some things about one another. I know the necklace is from her mom and there’s nothing but wounds from her dad. I know she dances even when people are looking but sometimes quiets herself when they’re listening. She knows I’m anxious but act the opposite. She knows I give my tips to the person who washes dishes. She hides my boozing from management, and I ask for her opinions when she hesitates to offer them.
She’s beside the dish-well massaging cups with a cloth, and I’ve moved beside her. She’s facing the bar, and I lean with my lower back against it. Without looking up from the glasses, she extends a strip of gum towards me. I decline, hands held upward like a hostage. She lifts her chin, tilting her forehead backwards so that she can look down her face at me.
“It’s bad tonight,” she says.
“I know.” I clutch my arms to one another for ballast.
She places a clean glass on the bar between us. “This can’t keep going. You know that.”
“I do,” I say, nodding but aware of the glass as a sign of her conceit.
“None of us belong here, Wilson.” She emphasizes my name like an instructor, while pouring two thin fingers of Bulleit into the cup. “But you’re the only one who’s coming from the real job. The life of travel. And now you’re here, and you’re always drinking. What’s happening?”
As my energy and hope have diminished it’s this exact question that I most appreciate. Morning drinking with shift workers and one of them saying, “What the fuck’s a guy like you doin’ here?” Setting a carafe of water on a patron’s table and a person asking, “Are you in graduate school or something?” Verbal transactions in the currency of assumed privilege, yes, but also confirmation of my great and secret suspicion which I won’t admit, but hope to have discovered; I have been given the physical and intellectual appearance of a competency I do not possess. I’m not okay. I can’t make it. I won’t be alright.
Allie raises the drink until the rim is resting in the nook between her bottom lip and chin. Her eyes are smiling lines into her skin as she waits for my realization. I lean my head backwards and a shout of laughter jumps out.
“Oh, did you think this was for you?” She waves the glass about. “I’m sorry, no. No, no,” she says, “this glass is for me and you’re not getting yours until you tell me what’s going on. Like, in the grander sense.”
“Come on, Allie,” I plead, “it’s for those kinds of questions that they even make the stuff. It doesn’t make sense to answer before the drink.”
Her lips and brow don’t flicker, and she continues to stare down her face towards mine. The windows look like walls of deep blue as the sky presses against them and the only sound is the humming of some machinery in the kitchen. I stare at a row of upturned tables, and then into the tiles beside my feet, and finally into her steady gaze–all as though I’m cranking or wrenching free a confession that has never been dislodged.
“A long time ago a friend who was really important to me killed himself.”
After a breath of a moment Allie says,“I’m so, so sorry.” She doesn’t touch my arm, but she does begin pouring my drink. I watch the bronze fill the glass, and I’m relieved I’m getting a drink and I’m relieved she’s done questioning, but I’m a liar.
I thought Andrew and I would have decades of phone calls, that we’d be in one another’s weddings, that I’d see his baby face on his baby. I loved him. I miss him. But I was running way before Andrew died. The honest answer is that I don’t have any idea what exactly it is that’s wrong with me. But people, Allie included, want reason. Cause and effect. An answer they can accept. And it’s not painful for me to talk about Andrew, either. Nothing hurts to tell or hear, anymore. If there’s a silver lining to whatever I’ve got, I think it’s that the vulnerability allowed by my emotional rigor mortis is perceived to be the same as connection.
We close and lock the doors to the café together. I smoke a cigarette against the exterior bricks and watch Allie drive out of sight. Centennial is open and Cyrus’s bike is gone, but I need too many drinks too quickly for a bar. The outside sky is lit by yellow lights from poles and white lights from space. I cross the street and step in the direction of my house, but my legs seize, my body crumples, and I’m lying on the cement.
This is new. My mind is as clear as my mind can get, but I’m on the ground and I don’t know why. I’m embarrassed without anyone around. I fold my legs beneath me, but they can’t lift the weight of my torso and head. I push my hands into the ground and by doing something like a push-up I manage to stand. I waver forward and backward but steady myself. I extend a straight right leg ahead and set it down with the force of too much weight. This time I catch my fall with ready palms.
I’m still alone, on the ground again, and the lights of space and poles are above me. It’s quiet and my most recent cigarette is all I smell. I rub shaking hands against my quads but knotted muscles as hard as tennis balls push back.
I don’t know if this is a consequence from drinking heavily for a decade, or from not drinking enough today, but it reminds me of the curling legs of a dead spider. I’m not worried about my legs, or for that matter my body. I’m worried someone will see me.
I’m disgusting. I know the life I hate living is a life to be envied, a life that should have been given to someone else. I know I am my only problem, and to have such a problem is a privilege. I know I’ve sold my dignity for my survival. Honesty, selflessness, and freedom, each given in exchange for additional days and hours of shame. I’ve consumed resources and affection and converted them into a heap on the ground. I repeatedly watch me disappoint me, see me poison me, and imagine me killing me. With delusional clarity I understand that my life has become burdensome for the ones who continue to love it. I’m accurately called a liar, a drunk, a pity. I’m an affirmation of a stigma. I’m running, falling, crawling–I’m sick and I’m suffering.
But I am not weak or a coward. I live in a reality created and legislated by genetics and trauma. I am the force of my desire to spare my family, set against a relentless belt, an infinite slope. Without the natural aid of hope or purpose, I do the best and bravest thing: I slide my feet from the sheets to the floor and by whatever means necessary survive time and myself to return them again.
Andrew was a thousand times a hero before he finally became a martyr, but it’s the consequences of the day he died which always demand I live another. I don’t think Andrew had a choice in the end, and maybe one day I won’t either, but tonight I do.
I throw my legs towards where I came from, direct my head towards where I’m going, and roll onto my belly. My jeans sound like peeling velcro against the pavement, my palms soft as sponges, and there’s blood on my elbows. I lunge forearm after forearm onto the pavement, right hand and left leg forward, then left hand and right leg, crawling, but not jumping.
Wilson MacConnachie and Louise The Girl Dog are recovering and living in Nashville, TN. He works in the combined field of mental health and substance abuse treatment and will begin his M.F.A. candidacy in the Fall of 2021.